Northwestern holds off Illini, 71-70
What happens when the team that can't get over the hump plays the team that can't win the close ones?
Northwestern revels in its best win of the year while Illinois relives its every loss of the year.
After Illinois rallied to turn a 12-point deficit into the game's last tie, NU senior point guard Juice Thompson drilled 3 clutch 3-pointers to lift the Wildcats to a 71-70 Big Ten win Saturday afternoon before a split standing-room-only crowd at Welsh-Ryan Arena.
The Illini had three chances to tie in the final 30 seconds, but Alex Marcotullio drew a charge from Demetri McCamey on the first opportunity and NU fouled McCamey purposefully before the Illini could try 3-pointers on the last two possessions.
"We lost some tough games in conference," said NU coach Bill Carmody. "Michigan State by 3. Michigan State in overtime. Ohio State by 1. So it was real nice for us to get, like, a signature win."
Thompson poured in a game-high 22 points as Northwestern (14-8, 4-7) avenged an 88-63 beating Jan. 6 at Illinois.
The Wildcats never led in that game, but the Illini never led Saturday after NU jumped to a 9-0 start.
Despite big surges in the middle of each half to dig out of double-digit deficits, Illinois (15-8, 5-5) dropped to 1-7 during games decided in the final minute.
"For us, it's Groundhog Day," said Illinois coach Bruce Weber. "It's the same story whether we go to Wisconsin, Indiana, Penn State or here. Can't get behind. Can't start halves bad. We've got to get some consistency."
Northwestern pounced on Illinois from the jump as Drew Crawford (12 points), who went 0-for-6 from 3-point range at Illinois and got benched after 19 minutes, drilled a 3-pointer and a 17-foot step-back jumper on NU's first two possessions.
"Coach (Jay) Price, who had the scout, circled Crawford," Weber said. "Said he had one of his worst games at our place and he's going to come back."
NU pushed its lead to 11 -- aided by a John Shurna 3-pointer on his first shot after being out eight days with a concussion -- before Illinois ratcheted up its pressure and forced the Wildcats to play faster.
"Usually we tell our guys that that kind of pressure, that's when we should really be good," Carmody said. "But they didn't quit and kept coming at us and coming at us."
Sixth man Brandon Paul (season-high 21 points) led Illinois' first-half surge, then the struggling McCamey triggered Illinois' 12-0 run in the second half.
McCamey (14 points, 4 assists) fed Mike Davis for a dunk, then hit a step-back 3-pointer as Thompson fouled an Illini underneath to give the visitors another possession. McCamey used that freebie to slash for a layup.
NU went almost six minutes without a point but suddenly found ways to shake Thompson free for 3-pointers.
The 5-foot-8 senior drilled 3s at the 6:11, 3:42 and 2:16 marks to keep the Illini at arm's length.
Weber said his guys didn't guard Northwestern's handoffs to Thompson correctly. NU center Luka Mirkovic agreed.
"It was because Johnny (Shurna) was cutting really well, so he was drawing Juice's player," Mirkovic said. "A lot of credit goes to Johnny, but also to Juice because he's a big-time shooter. And sometimes we were making a handoff and the defensive players would go under (the screen)."
While Northwestern earned a king-sized shot of adrenaline with the win, Weber wouldn't mind if his guys received a jolt of something to help their elusive pursuit of road wins.
"We came here early," Weber said. "We had people talk to them. Everything except electric shock, I think, to get them all going. Something's got … they've got to jolt themselves from inside."